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What Happened to the Female Directors of Hollywood? (Part 3)

Posted on Mar 10, 2017

By Carrie Rickey

  Stephanie Rothman’s “It’s a Bikini World” (1967) turned social and cinematic conventions on their heads. (YouTube)

Editor’s note: In October 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) began investigating Hollywood’s gender gap. Before the EEOC concludes its mediation process, Truthdig contributor Carrie Rickey considers the historic accomplishments of women behind the camera, how they got marginalized and how they are fighting for equal employment.

This five-part Truthdig series is published in partnership with Women and Hollywood and Chicken & Egg Pictures. Upcoming installments will run every Friday through March 24; click here to read Part 1 and here to read Part 2.

Part 3: A New Generation of Women Behind the Camera, 1966 – 1983

As Ida Lupino directed “The Trouble with Angels,” in 1966, the ground was shifting in Hollywood. A new generation of moviemakers, film-school graduates such as Francis Ford Coppola, Stephanie Rothman and Martin Scorsese were knocking on boardroom doors. But the occupants of those boardrooms were being booted, replaced by executives from the parking-lot giants and petroleum companies that had taken over Warner Brothers and Paramount.

The old order was history. The new order struggled with corporate change and with the social and political revolutions rocking the nation, from the antiwar movement to “women’s libbers,” as the popular press dubbed feminists.

Many women, feminist or not, watched films like “Easy Rider,” “M*A*S*H,” and “The Wild Bunch,” demanding to know why women on screen were sex objects, not characters. They asked, “Where are the women on screen?” Fewer asked, “Where are the women behind the camera?”

Even fewer were aware that this was an era during which the window for female filmmakers was open wide enough for more than one woman to crawl through. The female moviemakers that emerged between 1966 and 1983 challenged the prevailing image of the central hero and marginal heroine by creating a “counter cinema.” Theirs were films that actively criticized the conduct of male characters and cast females in the lead.

From the debut of Rothman, the subversive exploitation filmmaker, with “It’s a Bikini World” in 1967, to that of Kathleen Collins, the first African-American woman to make a feature film, in the early ’80s, a clutch of female filmmakers came in through the back door. So what if Jean-Luc Godard said that all he needed to make a movie was “a girl and a gun”? In the 1960s through the early 1980s, his female counterparts proved that all a gal needed was a script and an Arriflex (movie camera).

This new generation of female directors came from film schools, art schools, theater and comedy clubs. As was the case with Lois Weber and Ida Lupino, many of the new filmmakers were performers, like Elaine May. Rothman, Collins, Amy Heckerling, May, Joan Micklin Silver and Claudia Weill made a collective splash in the United States, while across the Atlantic their European counterparts, Chantal Akerman, Agnès Varda and Lina Wertmüller, likewise made waves.

In 1965 Rothman became the first woman to win a Directors Guild of America
fellowship. That same year, Roger Corman, the exploitation-movie producer who hired Coppola, Scorsese and Jonathan Demme for their first features, tapped her as his assistant. At the time it was rare for a woman to secure work behind the camera.

Rothman was a Jill-of-all-trades. She rewrote scenes for movies in production, scouted locations for those in the pipeline, cast actors and edited final cuts. For movies with continuity problems, Corman had her direct new scenes. Within a year he financed her first feature, “It’s a Bikini World” (1967), a singular feminist beach movie, starring Deborah Walley as a young woman who rejects a handsome surfer for his chauvinism, inspiring him to assume a different persona.

From 1967 to 1974, Rothman made six female-driven genre films, among them “Student Nurses” (1970), “The Velvet Vampire” (1971)—the first feminist vampire film—and “Group Marriage” (1973). These films satirized genre conventions and subverted male moviegoers’ expectations of submissive women. Despite her productivity and box office success, Rothman was one of the few Corman discoveries who did not go on to studio filmmaking.

Elaine May, half of the Nichols-and-May comedy duo with Mike Nichols, made her debut as a writer/director/star with “A New Leaf” (1971), one in a handful of rueful satires that look askance at men and what now is called male privilege. In “Leaf,” Walter Matthau is a gold digger hunting for a millionairess; in “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) Charles Grodin a cad who proposes marriage to Cybill Shepherd while on his honeymoon with Jeannie Berlin; in “Mikey and Nicky” (1975), John Cassavetes and Peter Falk are low-level mobsters and friends, one hired to kill the other.

Also a prolific screenwriter, May wrote “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), for which she landed an Academy Award nomination, and script-doctored “Tootsie” (1982). After her last feature, “Ishtar” (1987), the prescient comedy about two entertainers who get involved on opposite political sides in the Middle East, she wrote well-received scripts for “The Birdcage” (1996) and “Primary Colors” (1998).

During the mid-1970s, European imports by female directors had unusual currency. From Italy there were Lina Wertmüller’s “Swept Away” (1974) and “Seven Beauties” (1975), films about class war and that between the sexes. For “Beauties,” Wertmüller became the first woman to receive an Oscar nomination for best director. From Belgium in 1975 came Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelles,” examining the tedious “woman’s work” of a full-time mother and part-time prostitute. From France there was Agnès Varda’s “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t” (1977), about Parisiennes united and marching for civil and reproductive rights.

Back in the United States, Barbara Kopple made her debut with “Harlan County, USA” (1976), an intimate chronicle of Kentucky coal miners who refuse to sign a contract that has no-strike clause. With obvious sympathy for the miners and their families, the film had an unprecedented urgency. By rejecting the objective approach of other nonfiction filmmakers, the film helped change the course of American documentary filmmakers who likewise embraced a partisan approach to their subjects. The film won Kopple an Academy Award and kicked off a 40-year career that spans the Oscar-winning “American Dream” (1990) and “Miss Sharon Jones!” (2015).

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